On the evening of Nov. 18, 1933, a week before Thanksgiving, the SPHAS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team took the floor at their home court, the Broadwood Hotel at the corner of Broad and Wood Streets in Philadelphia. This was the first game for the 1933-34 season of the American Basketball League, the premier professional league of that era. The SPHAS opponent that evening was the Hoboken Thourots. Appearing in a SPHAS uniform for the first time was Joel “Shikey” Gotthoffer, who scored 7 points and helped lead the SPHAS to a 34-20 victory. Over the next 13 years as the SPHAS won 7 titles and became regarded as the game’s best team, Gotthoffer emerged as a star. A perennial most valuable player, Gotthoffer epitomized the era of great Jewish basketball players.
Today when one thinks of Jews and basketball, he might think of the coaches, owners and commissioners. Rarely, if ever, do you think of the players, but in the first half of the 20th century, basketball was largely considered a Jewish game. In many ways, it was built specifically for Jews. Invented in 1891, the game spread quickly to cities like New York and Philadelphia. This coincided with mass emigration of Eastern European Jews to Northeast urban areas. The young children of immigrant parents wanted to become more American, and one way to do so was through sports. Basketball became the sport of choice. It was easy to play and inexpensive. All one needed was a goal and a ball –rolled up rags or newspapers tied together would suffice. It was played in small, confined areas, and Jews took a particular liking to the sport. Soon, it was referred to as the “Jewish Game.” Some of the great Jewish basketball players in the early 1900s were: Nat Holman, Barney Sedran, Marty Friedman and Jammy Moskowitz.
Joel Gotthoffer was born on New Year’s Day in 1911, 20 years after the game of basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father emigrated from Austria, and worked designing women’s clothing in the garment industry in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The family eventually moved to the Bronx. He had two brothers and two sisters, and his mother was a homemaker. As a young boy, he gravitated to this new game of basketball. As he remembered, “I guess I started playing basketball before I could read. I can’t recall not playing.” Joel had a unique nickname. “I was called Shikey from childhood. When my mother called me, it must have sounded like ‘Shickey’ or ‘Shikey.’”
Shikey began spending time with the neighborhood boys, and together they formed a team that competed against other local teams. “We had the Bronx Owl Midgets, Bronx Owl Juniors and Bronx Owl Seniors. All were basketball teams. One generation moved up to the other, and all of us together built a basketball court behind the tenement houses we lived in. It was between 165th and 163rd Street on Union Ave in the East Bronx.” As Shikey kept playing, he improved greatly. At James Monroe High School he helped lead the team to three city championships. One of his teammates was Hank Greenberg, later a star baseball player for the Detroit Tigers.
After a successful high school career, Shikey’s college career never fully got off the ground amid allegations of playing as a professional on the side. He eventually ended up at New York University as an assistant to the basketball team. While at NYU, he was approached to join the newly formed American Basketball League as a member of the Yonkers, N.Y., team. He did and shortly thereafter he was traded to the Philadelphia SPHAS where he would eventually enjoy his greatest success. When he started with the SPHAS, he earned $35 a game. As he recalled, “My salary grew as the years went on. I was voted the team’s most valuable player six years consecutively. I joined the SPHAS in 1934 and left them in 1942. By 1942 I was close to $100 a game with the SPHAS.”
In the 1930s and early 1940s, the SPHAS were considered the best basketball team. Coached and managed by Eddie Gottlieb, known as the “Mogul,” the team consisted of Jewish players from Philadelphia and New York. CY Kaselman, Gil Fitch, Red Rosan and Inky Lautman represented Philadelphia, while Moe Goldman, Red Wolfe and Shikey Gotthoffer hailed from New York. During Shikey’s nine years with the SPHAS, the team made the playoffs six times, and won the championship five times. The team was known for its teamwork and unselfish style of play.
“We moved as a team, not as an individual,” Shikey is quoted as saying. “The man who had the ball would pass it as we moved up the court, not dribble it as they do today. Today the man with the ball is in the backcourt and the rest of the ballplayers are down in the area where the basket is. We played on the supposition that if all the men were advancing they had to guard us that way. When we came sweeping down, we came down in full force. They didn’t know where the ball was going to go or who was going to handle it. The ball always moved. The ball was off the floor. That was what we advocated. Of course we dribbled, but most of the action the ball was being moved. That brought about opportunities because of the changes that were taking place.”
Shikey always stood out. Sam Bernstein, a fan who attended many SPHAS games growing up, said: “Shikey Gotthoffer was tough. He may have been the toughest. He was not a bully, but he played tough. He had a good body, he could run, and he played a hard-nosed game. He was one of the toughest guys I ever saw play in those days. He was a winner.”
“Shikey Gotthoffer was sensational. He went to Monroe High School. He was named MVP in the ABL for a number of years. He was short and stocky, but smart and fast,” Bernie Fliegel, a former teammate and opponent, recalled. “I will always remember the one lesson he taught me. I was guarding him and I kept one arm to feel where he was, but I always kept watching everyone else. One time, he throws me into the stands. So, I learned to touch my opponent but do not let him throw you into the stands.”
The team’s best years were in the 1930s, a time of economic depression, rising anti-Semitism, and the impending Second World War. It was a rough game then. “There were a lot of brawls, but we made up afterwards. The spectators got involved, too,” Shikey recalled. “One time I had the ball for a throw-in from the side. The spectators sat very close. One guy [took] a cigar he was smoking and jabbed me in the thigh with it. I almost jumped into the balcony.”
The players faced a lot of anti-Semitism on the road but they played through it.
During WWII, Shikey was a supervisor at Wright Aeronautics in New York, where he built engines for B-21s. “After the war, Eddie Gottlieb asked me if I wanted to coach Philadelphia in the BAA (Basketball Association of America). I gave it a lot of thought and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to do it because I felt that if I didn’t make the grade there, I would have to go looking for another coaching job in another city. I had two young kids and my wife, and I didn’t want to put them in a position where they would never have any friends in school because their father was moving around, and they’d have to start all over and make other friendships, and my wife would be in the same category. I decided that I didn’t want to do that to my family. As a matter of fact, even in business, I chose not to become a salesman with territory which would have yielded me a tremendous amount of dollars as opposed to being in the metropolitan area. So I stayed to be in contact with my family and be home every night.”
Basketball never left Shikey. Reflecting nearly 40 years retirement, “If I could do it all over again, I would. You betcha. I didn’t know there were girls around until I was 17 years old. I didn’t go to parties. We didn’t have time. It sounds ridiculous. I’d go to school, come out of school and go to the schoolyard and play. At night, I would go to play some more – all the time playing basketball. I played basketball, basketball, basketball.
“Before we disbanded we became the darlings of Philadelphia. Connie Mack’s [base]ball clubs were no longer the darlings, the SPHAS were. We couldn’t go anywhere in Philadelphia without being recognized. It was a very nice feeling. When I got off the train at Broad Street station, the redcaps would run to take my basketball bag. They knew me by name and by sight. We were well loved. Even William Penn’s statue on the top of City Hall used to bow to us. Every time the SPHAS came by, he’d bow to us.”
DOUGLAS STARK is the co-author of “Shikey Gotthoffer,” a children’s book, and “The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team.” He also wrote “Wartime Basketball.” He is a lifelong basketball fan.